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The Specimen: from Type Catalog to Design Meme

There’s an epidemic afoot. Designers are addicted to old specimen books. So much so, it’s affecting their work.

Contributed by Sam Berlow on Dec 13th, 2010.

ATF Specimen Book 1912

ATF Specimen Book, 1912. Photo by Henning Krause.

Bold Antique Condensed

A page from the book. Courtesy Leadsandslugs.com.

Sometime in the ’80s, browsing my brother’s bookcase, I came across “Big Red”, the famous 1912 catalog from ATF. Page by page, this old specimen book made time evaporate. A few years later I discovered Stevenson Blake, Barnhart Brothers, Berthold, Nebiolo, and Ludlow. Then my favorites: the Schelter and Figgins. The common thread — beyond the letters — was “the specimen”.

I had no idea why specimens were were so intriguing until Tobias Frere-Jones broke it down for me a few years later. Tobias was embarking on creating the first Font Bureau specimen book and he pitched the idea of using the specimen as the core layout. Mixing classic text layouts, and bios written by type historian Mike Parker, Frere-Jones carefully crafted the Font Bureau specimen book based upon the page designs found in the old specimen books.

Font Bureau was not the only type foundry in the early ’90s to be inspired by these books. Jonathan Hoefler made fantastic, often inspirational specimens that to this day are used as templates by designers. Soon small foundries all over were using these classic specimens to promote their wares.

The concept made perfect sense for showing digital type. The weights and widths of the super family are well represented in these layouts. The line-by-line showings showcase the breadth and versatility of large families and demonstrate how the type performs at various sizes. A user can digest a family at a single glance. All its strengths and qualities are apparent without plowing through multiple pages of samples. And, of course, the justified alignment creates a universally pleasing solid block of type.

Paula Scher for CBS Records

“Best Of…” by Paula Scher for CBS Records, using Champion Gothic (H&FJ).

Fred Woodward for Rolling Stone

The cover of Rolling Stone (1993), art directed by Fred Woodward, using Eagle (Font Bureau).

What I never saw coming is the epidemic that has spread through the graphic design community. The specimens themselves — common in the libraries of designers — may have started the trend.

Or maybe it was the packed-solid typography of Fred Woodward, Paula Scher, and Roger Black, designers who have all been inspired by this classic form.

Type Specimen Design Genre

Regardless of the causes, it is now everywhere, from movie posters to advertising, from magazine and book covers to public service announcements. I even spotted an ad for an “anti-stress drink” that was clearly inspired by our own specimen for Titling Gothic.

Titling Gothic specimen and Natural Calm ad

Update, Nov. 24, 2011: This post now has a companion blog.


14 Comments on “The Specimen: from Type Catalog to Design Meme”

  1. Florian says:
    Dec 21st, 2010  2:08 pm
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    Well documented! The cover of the recently released album ‘Fremde Federn’ by German band Element of Crime is another obvious evidence of the trend – the type specimen goes pop.

  2. Kent Lew says:
    Dec 21st, 2010  3:51 pm
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    Incidentally, the epithet “Big Red” is also frequently used to refer to the big, red Linotype specimen, ca. 1935. That’s the one I usually hear referred to this way, more than the 1912 ATF. But maybe that’s just me.

  3. Nick Sherman says:
    Dec 21st, 2010  4:23 pm
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    I've been noticing this theme a lot as well. After thinking about it for a while though, I might have to disagree that it all comes back to the classic type specimens.

    The designs you mention and show here are justified compositions where each line is set in a different size and/or style. While this definitely has become a standard approach to type specimen design in recent years – especially since Font Bureau popularized it – I don't think it has as much to do with the old specimens from ATF, etc. The traditional specimens were indeed justified, but as you can see in the image from the ATF book above, they were much more methodical in their arrangement – showing more of a regimented scale of sizes, from large to small. In fact, it's hard to recall many pre-Font Bureau type specimens where the size and style jumped around as much on the same page that way.

    The result has an amazing effect which is indeed great for showing type, but I might argue that, historically, these kinds of compositions have more to do with old playbills, where the printers were being intentionally playful with size and style in order to solicit attention and fill empty space.

    Perhaps I'm overlooking something though? What is the earliest type specimen you know of where sizes and styles were changed arbitrarily from line to line? Perhaps the type specimens are actually just another follower of a trend which in fact started in the justified headlines of 19th-century playbills?

  4. André Mora says:
    Dec 21st, 2010  4:49 pm
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    To Nick's point—its also worth considering the fact that many specimens, when playing with sizes and justification, were carefully (and artfully) choosing words and phrases. The language itself is what has always drawn me in.

    So much of the trend shown above is just a matter of scaling, by a designer who may have no editorial authority (or desire) to refine or elaborate on the text. Which, I think, is why so much of it becomes sloppy and feels forced.

  5. Paul Shaw says:
    Dec 21st, 2010  6:54 pm
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    I agree with Nick that the origins of this typographic scheme go back to the broadsides and playbills of the early 19th c. I reused the idea for the entry form for the first TDC2 competition a decade ago. As André points out, matching the text to the design is critical—and that was one of the challenges I relished about the design. However, I also chose that approach as a way to pack a lot of text into a small space and still have it be accessible. Maybe clients (and designers) are gravitating to this look simply to cram more information in.

    (We printed the TDC2 call for entry in metallic and fluorescent inks letterpress. If there is a way to upload images I can send one, though it loses something in the photography.)

  6. Nick Sherman says:
    Dec 21st, 2010  7:20 pm
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    Also, Ken, there was some good discussion of the "Big Red" moniker on Typographica a while back. I've heard it used for both books, which is no surprise.

  7. David Berlow says:
    Dec 22nd, 2010  9:19 am
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    So, if the playbill is life, and the specimen is art, is life imitating art or art imitating life?

    What I can add on the birth of this at FB is, when I was first asked to digitize Franklin Gothic and Cheltenham (1989), I wanted to calibrate my process to the original metal faces via the specimens as closely as possible. So, I recomposed the ATF specimens exactly in Pagemaker with the new fonts, learning details of sizing the font to the em, leading, and optical size issues by trying to compose the pages with a single outline.

    Roger Black was already doing the kind of composition we’re talking about, in his publication design work, and I soon learned that anything I made a specimen of in this way, he'd love. So it stuck until the next generation had been convinced of the utter beauty of type composed as art imitating life.

  8. Fonts In Use says:
    Dec 22nd, 2010  10:41 am
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    Click to enlarge.

    Paul Shaw sent us this image of the TDC call for entry which he mentioned above, with the following background info:

    I wrote the text and did the initial typographic design. James Montalbano helped with the final typography and Peter Kruty did the printing. The red is acrylic paint and the text is silver. There was a second version in copper on purple.

    By the way, the name TDC2 was chosen because it was the Type Design Competition from the Type Directors Club. James and I had no idea the competition would so quickly become an institution. Twelve years!

    All the tongue-in-cheek sensationalisms in the text make reading through that densely set type well worth the effort.

  9. Sam Berlow says:
    Dec 22nd, 2010  10:59 am
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    Another example by Paula Scher is in her design for a parking garage in Manhattan, using H&FJ's Verlag.

  10. Oscar says:
    Dec 22nd, 2010  11:10 am
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    Great article, very interesting and well written.

    I agree with Nick, this style comes from our need to fill space and compose back in the day... But I think this has been evolving since then, now we don't just do it to fill or to make it look good but you actually think why a word bigger, why different font, etc...

  11. Ann says:
    Jan 6th, 2011  6:20 pm
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    Amazing article! After buying a large collection for my bookshop, I discovered a treasure trove of old typography and design books, including the 1935 Linotype "Big Red." I am smitten with these books...so much so that I find them difficult to part with!

  12. Christian says:
    Jan 23rd, 2011  11:34 am
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    If one was interested in buying old specimen books, where would be the best place to start?

  13. Jan 24th, 2011  4:38 am
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    Type specimen style justification is now about to become even more popular on the web thanks to a new jQuery plugin that automatically resizes the text on each line (div) to fit the width of the containing block (div).

  14. Roger Black says:
    Oct 10th, 2011  11:28 am
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    Nick was asking me by e-mail why I called this style "stat to width" and it made think about the transition from metal to digital typography.

    After I answered, he suggested I post the reply here, a somewhat late addition to this thread:

    * * *

    Stat To Width

    Well, that's what I called it back in analog days. With metal you would have to speck a headline by point size.We would use tracing cards to comp out the layout before setting the type.

    In the photo era, you could order a headline big, and then photostat it to the size you wanted. I remember the full width of a Rolling Stone page (inside the Oxford rules) was 59 picas. I would take headlines that I'd pasted up from the Phototypositor type (typically on 3-ply Brystal board), marked up the widths and percentages for the camera room on a sheet of tracing paper taped over the paste-up.

    Sometimes we actually would order repros of foundry metal, or Montotype type, and handle it the same way. This was the case with one of my luckier early designs for Rolling Stone. Tony Lane, the art director who hired me, had taken an amazing photo of Charles Bukowkski; I had been at the shoot at his apartment in L.A. Bukowski had some of his some paintings, which he signed them Buk.

    The headline was "The Pock-Marked Poetry of Charles Bukowski." I ordered it in Monotype Antique Modern (the Lanston font) from MacKenzie & Harris, of course. I worked in what we called "hard comps" rather than the sketches. To do the layout, I took the letterpress galley and marked it up for four lines, each sized to 59 picas. (I was a very tech savvy art director in those days, and used a calculator instead of a proportion scale to get the percentages for the stats.) The word POETRY looked fantastic,with the ink spread in the newsprint galley paper adding some nice pockmarking, so I started thinking that I wouldn't redraw it, which we usually would do when we got type that was blown up too big. Then I got Tony's select for the photo and statted it up—in black and white of course. (These were not phtotostats, which took two shots, and wet paper you had to peel apart to get a paper negative, and then shoot again to get a negative of the negative. Stats were replaced in the 70s by PMT, Photo Mechanical Transfers. We still called them stats.

    But the big block of type took a lot of room and seemed heavy. The portrait was heavy enough. Then I thought of the poet's signature on the paintings, and I sized BUK up again, and then took the original block down to one column (19 picas). Voila.

    bukrollingstone2

    I found the spread on the Internet. Somebody had bought the issue on Ebay for $5. (You gotta love Google.)

    Anyway, the original four-line type treatment was done like the Font Bureau specimens. The lines are not specific point sizes. It's "stat to fit." In the old metal specimen books, each line was of course in an exact point size, and writing good copy that fit was a trick. So much easier now.

    * * *

    Here's another one from my "late period" at Rolling Stone. With Matthew's Cochin. (And photo by Annie.) This idea of this style was to use oldstyle type in modern way. I was insistent on left-to-right, big to small hierarchy so you could follow the layout and read the story! This was more of a case of stat-to-height.

    By the way, the writer here, Don Katz, went on to start Audible.com.

    Fonda_opener_RS09-03-78

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